Interviews / Poets

Interview with Jayme Ringleb: “Most of my writing process isn’t with words on the page.”

Jayme Ringleb is a queer writer raised in the southern United States and northern Italy. Jayme’s debut poetry collection, So Tall It Ends in Heaven, is published by Tin House Books. Poems from this collection have appeared recently in Poetry, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, and Ploughshares.

Jayme holds a PhD from Florida State University, an MFA from the University of Oregon, and an MBA from the University of Iowa. An assistant professor of English at Meredith College, Jayme lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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Hi Jayme, welcome to Famous Writing Routines! It’s great to have you here with us today. Congratulations on your debut poetry collection, So Tall It Ends in Heaven. Can you tell us a bit about the collection and what inspired you to write it?

Thank you for having me, and I appreciate your congratulations! I’m grateful to be invited into this space.

So Tall It Ends in Heaven follows a speaker who, after the end of his marriage, tries to restore his relationship with his father. He and his father are doubly alienated: they are citizens of different countries, and the father rejected his son long ago after learning that his son is gay. The book is in many ways trying to illustrate what happens to queer people when they come out: we so often lose people we love, so our understanding of what love is can become very heavily influenced or even changed by the grief of that loss. 

The inspiration for the book came piecemeal, through single poems written toward anxieties I have around various forms of love—romantic, devotional, familial. So it wasn’t that the book or narrative came to me as a whole, and then I wrote toward it; it was that I wrote toward social and psychological pressures, and a cohesive speaker and narrative emerged from that.

The speaker in So Tall It Ends in Heaven is searching for answers across the United States and Europe and struggling to separate his understanding of devotion and belonging from the constant losses in his life. Can you talk about the journey the speaker embarks on in the collection and what it represents for the speaker and for readers?

Sure: after the speaker’s marriage dissolves, he searches for his estranged father. That estrangement is tied up in the speaker’s own queerness, so this search begins to represent, for the speaker, a kind of healing around what love means or is for him. I sometimes talk about the book as a narrative of queer healing, and I believe its journey is ultimately inward, psychological, and idiosyncratic: it’s a movement, ultimately, toward self-love.

Having been raised in the southern United States and northern Italy, how has your unique background influenced the themes and style of your writing?

Primarily through a troubled sense of belonging and through an equally troubled sense of what it means to desire that belonging. I’ve never felt that I was authentically a southerner, and I’ve never been an Italian; in both settings, I lacked the foundational cultural and experiential points of reference, I didn’t speak the way my peers spoke, and my experiences were labeled inauthentic or foreign to the spaces and cultures in which I experienced them.

This sense of non-belonging increased further when I later began to understand my own queerness, particularly in light of the fact that both the southern United States and northern Italy can be unsafe for queer people. So, the first question was, “How can I belong?”—but for me that question had to become, “Is it good for me to want to belong here?”

With a PhD from Florida State University, an MFA from the University of Oregon, and an MBA from the University of Iowa, how has your education influenced your writing and your approach to poetry?

The MFA and PhD were profoundly helpful to me as I worked to identify the traditions of genre and craft I wanted to be in conversation with—and how I might adapt and subvert those traditions to speak with authenticity and particularity about my own experiences. 

Both degrees helped me to structure, with intention and rigor (and a good bit of patience, I think!), the inevitably lifelong journey of developing my craft, language, and voice. While the MBA didn’t address literature, I do carry with me into my poems some of its strategies for writing cogently and succinctly.

Each of these programs gave me community. They gave me people to learn from and love; they gave me people to belong to.

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Your poetry explores themes of sexuality, estrangement, and the distances we travel for love. How did you approach these themes in your writing and what do you hope readers will take away from the collection?

I’ve approached those themes from the perspective of how I might use poetry to console the anxieties I associate with them. In my experience, the act of writing almost always has consolatory value: the act of transforming a psychological pressure (grief, for example, or rage) into a tangible piece of writing has, I think, been a healthy practice for me, a way of redirecting anxieties that might otherwise fester.

I think there’s also something to writing narratively as a means of regaining a personal sense of agency. If I can tell or retell a story, I have some agency over how that story is told or what its outcome is: I am someone who has survived to tell the story of what has impacted me, and I get to reconsider what that impact is.

I hope that this idea of consolation may also be of value to a reader, at least procedurally. It’s a real privilege in and of itself to be read—to have readers who spend time investing in and considering your writing, who may even make it meaningful to their own life experiences. I don’t know that I have the words for how humbling that is, and I also don’t know that I have particularly fixed expectations for how readers might interact with or personalize the book.

Can you walk us through your creative process? What does a typical writing day look like for you?

A writing day! I don’t know that I’ve had one of those, at least not a full one. My brain gets soupy after just a few hours of writing, I’m afraid. But I can speak to the process of those few hours.

If we’re considering writing in terms of getting words down on a page, I’m probably cloistered in the guest bedroom (which currently doubles as my office) late at night when the house and neighborhood are quiet. I rely on silence and stillness; my concentration is easily broken. If I’m in the first or second drafts of a poem, I’m writing on paper; if I’m revising, I’m using a laptop. In either case, I’ll write a draft, polish it a little, record myself reading it, and then listen to that recording and agonize—and I’ll repeat this until I’m satisfied (or too soupy, or some version of bored or annoyed).

That said, most of my writing process isn’t with words on the page. It’s a lot of thinking, a lot of interiority and examination. This also isn’t a particularly public practice for me, but it’s a much more physically active one: it typically involves walking, either in nature, around the neighborhood, or around the house. And it also involves noise—music, mostly, and an embarrassing amount of talking to myself out loud. Occasionally I’ll take notes during this part of it, but mostly I won’t; I’ll leave to memory and gut what of this part survives to later stages.

If you could have a conversation with an author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

I think my answer might be Bashō. His craft in image and distillation, the warmth and empathy in much of his writing, his measured sense of self and privacy, his generosity with his students—I think it would be a pleasant, kind, and edifying conversation.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favourite reads?

I’ve recently developed a queer literature course at Meredith College, where I teach, so a lot of my current reading is determined by my continuing development of that syllabus. Some books include Billy-Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body, Sherronda J. Brown’s Refusing Compulsory Sexuality, Aminder Dhaliwal’s Cyclopedia Exotica, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby, Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, and Rivers Solomon’s The Deep, to name a few. We’ve recently read Paige Lewis’s Space Struck in that course, and this term we’ll be reading Britteney Black Rose Kapri’s Black Queer Hoe. In my poetry writing course, we’re reading Threa Almontaser’s The Wild Fox of Yemen, Victoria Chang’s Obit, Sharon Olds’s The Father, and Danez Smith’s Homie.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

Ha, so, um, my writing desk looks like it’s been transplanted from the workspace of a decent but cheap hotel. It’s spotless, it looks unused, and most would probably consider it austere-verging-on-soulless. But I like that it’s a usefully blank slate every time I sit down to it, that it makes room just for me and my attention to the work.

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